How tech became the perfect travel companion in the Middle East

Saudi passengers arrive to King Khaled International airport in the capital Riyadh on May 17, 2021, as Saudi authorities lift travel restrictions for citizens immunised against COVID-19. (AFP/File Photo)
Saudi passengers arrive to King Khaled International airport in the capital Riyadh on May 17, 2021, as Saudi authorities lift travel restrictions for citizens immunised against COVID-19. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 17 July 2021

How tech became the perfect travel companion in the Middle East

Saudi passengers arrive to King Khaled International airport in the capital Riyadh on May 17, 2021, as Saudi authorities lift travel restrictions for citizens immunised against COVID-19. (AFP/File Photo)
  • COVID-19 pandemic has opened new horizons for companies amid changing traveler demands
  • Many in the travel tech sector are adapting to the changing needs of travelers and thriving

CAIRO: Travel has been one of the most severely affected sectors during the coronavirus pandemic. With many countries closing their borders and introducing lockdown measures to contain COVID-19, the industry witnessed its worst performance in decades.

Between January and March 2021 destinations around the world welcomed 180 million fewer international arrivals compared with the first quarter of last year. Asia and the Pacific continued to suffer the lowest levels of activity with a 94 percent drop, followed by Europe ( -83 percent), Africa (-81 percent), the Middle East (-78 percent) and the Americas (-71 percent).

This all follows on from the 73 percent fall in worldwide international tourist arrivals recorded in 2020, making it the worst year on record for the sector, according to UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) figures.

Yet, there are signs of recovery, with many in the travel tech sector already adapting to the changing needs of travelers and some even thriving in the new normal.




Fundok, a newly launched digital solution platform for the hospitality sector, expanded its offerings to meet the changing needs of today’s traveler. (Supplied)

The pandemic has brought about significant changes in the way people move about. Rana Dababneh, founder of Pomalo Travel, said that although she sees far fewer travelers today, those who do travel want to go to safe and remote destinations.

“Even from early on in the pandemic, we could see that the face of travel will change,” she said. “We started looking at destinations that offer natural isolation, and are full of wilderness and nature experiences, away from cities.”

For this boutique travel agency in Amman and Dubai, the Maldives was the top destination in 2020 because of its remoteness and natural appeal. However, with countries frequently updating their travel restrictions, people are becoming wary about taking a journey.

“It’s also about trust in the system,” said Dababneh. “If I travel, I need to know that I can come back. It’s not only about COVID-19 but about things not getting complicated.”

Indeed, according to a recent survey across 12 countries, respondents in the UAE were concerned about border closures while traveling and having to quarantine in their destination. In fact, they were more worried about having to quarantine than the risk of catching the virus, either on a flight or while abroad, the survey found.

INNUMBERS

* 73 percent - Drop in worldwide international tourist arrivals in 2020.

* 78 percent - Drop in tourist arrivals in Middle East destinations.

While the pandemic hit the industry severely, it also prompted travel tech startups to turn to technology in this new age of travel.

Trift, a travel platform that encourages sustainable destination experiences, launched virtual tour guides during the pandemic for people to preview destinations from the comfort of their homes.

“We have used this downtime to pivot to a new offering that will help people plan better for their next holiday after the pandemic,” said co-founder Tarun Krishna.

“We also wanted to support our community of local guides and travel content creators by launching ‘Virtual Experiences,’ an interactive travel discovery and planning experience available in both on-demand and live formats.”

As a result, Krishna recently piloted a project with the Institute for Development of Bonito in Brazil to digitally support tourism in the country. The venture makes natural experiences accessible to everyone while also paving the way for paid on-demand virtual experiences to support local tour guides.




At a time when contactless interactions are preferred and guests want less contact with people, digital solutions are proving valuable. (Supplied)

Meanwhile, Fundok, a newly launched digital solution platform for the hospitality sector, expanded its offerings to meet the changing needs of today’s traveler. In addition to providing destination insights and content, it recently developed a range of digital services, including check-ins/check-outs, room guides and concierge services.

All are available on tablets in rooms and apartments as well as on guests’ mobile phones. “We moved from service-based to holistic experience solutions,” said Mohamed Nassar, the platform’s co-founder.

At a time when contactless interactions are preferred and guests want less contact with people, these digital solutions are proving valuable. So far, the startup has boosted its portfolio by about 300 percent and recently expanded to Cairo.

Nassar is optimistic about the future. “There has been much said about the doom and gloom, but we are all still here. Businesses are much more resilient and adaptive to the current environment than we think. Nothing is easy, but we’re hopeful for 2021,” he said.


UK told to ‘respond severely’ after Briton killed on Israeli vessel

UK told to ‘respond severely’ after Briton killed on Israeli vessel
Updated 31 July 2021

UK told to ‘respond severely’ after Briton killed on Israeli vessel

UK told to ‘respond severely’ after Briton killed on Israeli vessel
  • Israeli FM blames Iran for drone attack off Oman coast
  • UK govt spokesman: “Vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law”

LONDON: Israel has told the UK to “respond severely” after a British citizen was killed in a drone attack on a ship in the Arabian Gulf.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid blamed Iran for the attack which, US officials say, saw several drones laden with explosives flown into the Mercer Street tanker, one of which hit the crew’s living quarters.
The assault on the vessel, operated by Israeli-owned firm Zodiac Maritime, occurred off the coast of Oman on Friday, killing the Briton — who is thought to have been working as a security guard on board — and a Romanian citizen.
The UK government has yet to comment on who it believes is responsible for the attack, or to identify the deceased.
“Our thoughts are with the loved ones of a British national who has died following an incident on a tanker off the coast of Oman,” a UK government spokesman said.
“Vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law. We are working with our international partners to urgently establish the facts.”
Tensions between Iran and Israel have escalated in recent months amid talks between Tehran and Western nations in Vienna to reignite the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal.
Israel is thought to be behind a series of strikes on Iran’s infrastructure relating to its uranium enrichment program.
Both sides are believed to have launched cyberattacks against each other and targeted their respective maritime links, including ships and ports.
“Iran is spreading violence and destruction in every corner of the region,” an Israeli official told the Daily Telegraph. “Due to its enthusiasm for attacking an Israeli target, they have gotten themselves tangled up and have incriminated themselves by killing foreign citizens.”
Iranian news network Al-Alam claimed that the attack on the Mercer Street was retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria on Iranian targets last week that killed two “resistance fighters.” Tehran, though, has yet to comment on Lapid’s accusation.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the US Foundation for Defense of Democracies said: “It would be no surprise to me that Iran would use a drone to carry out its tit-for-tat against Israel and maritime vessels. Iran has shown a gradual escalation in (the) maritime domain.”
He added: “This sort of tit-for-tat escalation is going to continue and Iran is likely to step up these attacks ... to signal that it will not take any cyber sabotage against it lying down.”


Israel pushes for UN action against Iran over deadly ship attack

Israel pushes for UN action against Iran over deadly ship attack
Updated 31 July 2021

Israel pushes for UN action against Iran over deadly ship attack

Israel pushes for UN action against Iran over deadly ship attack
  • Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said he has ordered the nation’s diplomats to push for UN action against “Iranian terrorism”

JERUSALEM: Israel is pressing for international action against Iran over a deadly attack on a ship managed by an Israeli billionaire, branding Tehran an “exporter of terrorism” after the likely drone strike.
The MT Mercer Street tanker was struck Thursday in the northern Indian Ocean, killing two crew members, in what the United States said was a drone-style attack.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the strike, but maritime industry analysts Dryad Global said “this latest attack has the hallmarks of the ongoing Israel/Iran ‘shadow war’.”
On Friday Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said he has ordered the nation’s diplomats to push for UN action against “Iranian terrorism.”
“I’ve instructed the embassies in Washington, London and the UN to work with their interlocutors in government and the relevant delegations in the UN headquarters in New York,” Lapid said on Twitter.
“Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction and instability that are hurting us all,” he said.
“We must never remain silent in the face of Iranian terrorism, which also harms freedom of navigation,” Lapid added.
Lapid said he had also spoken to his British counterpart Dominic Raab, stressing “the need to respond severely to the attack on the ship in which a British citizen was killed.”
Zodiac Maritime, the tanker’s London-based operator owned by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer, said a Romanian national also died in the attack.
The Mercer Street, an oil products tanker, was traveling from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates with no cargo aboard when it was struck, Zodiac Maritime said.


The US military said that early indications “clearly point” to a drone strike on the Mercer Street, a Japanese-owned tanker flying a Liberian flag.
Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam state TV channel, citing “informed regional sources,” said the attack was a “response to a recent Israeli attack” targeting an airport in central Syria where Iran is backing the regime.
Israeli retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom said the attack appeared to copy elements of a reported Israeli exploding drone strike on a centrifuge manufacturing site in Iran in June.
Israel, Brom told AFP, “started developing drones and is among the first (countries) to develop the concept of a kamikaze.
“The Iranians are imitating us and adopting the same techniques,” said Brom, now a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Iran’s strike marked “a certain escalation” but aimed at avoiding a full-scale war,” he said.
“They are not interested in a wider escalation, just as we are not interested in a wider escalation,” Brom added.
In June, Iran said it had foiled a sabotage attack on an atomic energy agency building near the city of Karaj west of Tehran.
But aerial photographs obtained by private Israeli intelligence firm The Intel Lab revealed damage to the site.


Several unmanned Iranian drones appear to have carried out the attack on the Mercer Street, crashing into living quarters under the ship’s command center, the New York Times reported citing anonymous Israeli officials.
A US official told the newspaper Americans boarded the ship to investigate the attack.
By Friday afternoon, Zodiac Maritime said the ship was “sailing under the control of her crew” to a safe location under the protection of a US naval escort.
The strike on the tanker comes as European powers meet with Iran in an effort to shore up a 2015 agreement to curtail the Islamic republic’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions.
The accord was strained when in 2018 former US President Donald Trump withdrew the US unilaterally and reimposed sanctions.
Negotiations in Vienna, where the US is indirectly taking part, have stalled ahead of next week’s inauguration of newly elected ultra-conservative Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi.
Dryad Global said the attack was the fifth against a ship connected to Israel since February. Two ships tied to Iran were attacked in that period, the firm said.


Tunisian security forces place prominent judge under house arrest

Tunisian security forces place prominent judge under house arrest
Updated 31 July 2021

Tunisian security forces place prominent judge under house arrest

Tunisian security forces place prominent judge under house arrest

TUNIS: A Tunisian judge who has been accused by human rights groups of hiding terrorism-related files has been placed under house arrest for 40 days, local radio and a security source said on Saturday.
The move against Judge Bechir Akremi came after President Kais Saied pledged to lead a campaign against corruption in all sectors, following his dismissal this week of the prime minister and freezing of parliament.
Right activists in Tunisia see Akremi as symbolizing corruption in the judiciary, saying he is close to the Ennahda moderate Islamist party, the biggest party in parliament.
Lawyers and secular parties said files he allegedly hid include those related to the assassination of two secular leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013, which led to massive protests at the time that ended with the overthrow of the government.
Akremi has not commented on these accusations and was not immediately available to comment on Saturday.
Ennahda rejects accusations that it has ties to the judge or that it has interfered in judicial files.
Tunisia has been thrust into a political crisis by Saied's action on Sunday. Ennahda and other major parties have accused the president of a coup, which he denies. 


US-led coalition says provided Iraq military with weapons worth $5 billion since 2014

US-led coalition says provided Iraq military with weapons worth $5 billion since 2014
Updated 31 July 2021

US-led coalition says provided Iraq military with weapons worth $5 billion since 2014

US-led coalition says provided Iraq military with weapons worth $5 billion since 2014

DUBAI: The US-led coalition has provided the Iraqi security forces with equipment worth more than $5 billion since 2014, the bloc’s spokesman said Friday.

“Only in the last week, the international coalition equipped the Iraqi security forces with equipment worth 35 million dollars,” international coalition spokesman Colonel Wayne Morato said.

“This is part of From the Fund for financing, training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, which was supported by the American forces,” he added. 

This includes communications and intelligence equipment as well as other support, Morato added in a statement to the Iraqi News channel, carried by the Iraqi News Agency (INA). 

“The support will continue to support the Iraqi forces, and perhaps in the future and in light of the decision to withdraw combat forces, and it will be left to a decision by the Iraqi and American governments,” the spokesman said. 

Last week,  an Iraqi army official said that Iraq's relationship with the international coalition will be based on  fighting terrorism, providing training and equipment to Iraqi forces, and intelligence effort, the INA reported.


Houthi-controlled areas largest hotbeds for human trafficking, Yemeni minister says

Houthi-controlled areas largest hotbeds for human trafficking, Yemeni minister says
Updated 31 July 2021

Houthi-controlled areas largest hotbeds for human trafficking, Yemeni minister says

Houthi-controlled areas largest hotbeds for human trafficking, Yemeni minister says
  • Yemeni official calls on the UN, the international community and human rights groups to help the victims of the Houthi militia’s crimes

DUBAI: Areas in Yemen controlled by the Houthi militias have become the largest hotbeds of human trafficking, Muammar Al-Eryani, the conflict-ridden country’s information minister, said.

Al-Eryani issued the statement as the world celebrated International Day for Combating Human Trafficking on July 30.

The Houthi militia’s coup and war have undermined the efforts made by the state before 2014 in combating human trafficking in terms of regulations, laws and field procedures, the official said, in a report from state news agency Saba.

The militia’s “policy of child soldier recruitment, disappearance of women in secret prisons, sexual abuse, enforced waves of internal and external displacements, and high rates of poverty and unemployment, have made the areas under Houthi control the largest hotbeds of human trafficking in the world,” Al-Eryani said.

The Yemeni official called on the UN, the international community and human rights groups to help the victims of the Houthi militia’s crimes in human trafficking and to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice by treating them as “war criminals.”